Lectionary Commentaries for May 20, 2012
Seventh Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 17:6-19

James Boyce

The hour approaches and along with it the glory of both the Father and the Son as Jesus prays on behalf of those to whom the Father has authorized him to “give eternal life.”

Consistent with this major Johannine theme (cf. John 3:16) this eternal life is that all those who have been entrusted to the Son should know the Father as the “only true God” and Jesus Christ as the one whom God has sent into the world (17:3)

These words introduce the lengthy prayer of John chapter 17 in which Jesus continues his address to his disciples, encouraging them to confidence and hope in the face of his imminent “departure” from them because of his suffering and death on the cross. Now both they and the faithful hearers of John’s gospel, both ancient and modern, “listen in” on his words as he prays to the Father on behalf of those who are left in the world.

As noted in the comments on the gospel lessons for Easter 5 and 6, the lengthy address of Jesus to his disciples in John 13-17, though in the narrative ostensibly set prior to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death on the cross, is transparent in its presentation as the words of an already resurrected Lord who now encourages a company of disciples, including us in light of the resurrection promise. As Easter people, we are encouraged not to dwell in feelings of abandonment or despair, but to hope in the assurance of Jesus’ continuing presence, now that the work for which he was sent has been accomplished. “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do” (17:4).

Extravagant Giving

Today’s reading (6-19) comprises a central section of Jesus’ prayer and so offers some of the major themes of Jesus’ prayer which encompasses the whole of chapter 17.

Perhaps the most significant of the themes is in the prominent language of “giving” which in nine occurrences runs throughout and characterizes the theology of this passage (as in the 75 times in the gospel as a whole) in terms of a mutual extravaganza of giving. Both the Father and the Son are “givers” and their mutual giving constitutes the grace which those who belong to Jesus have inherited and in which they are now seen to live. Once again, precisely in the action of “giving” the Father and Son are joined as one. Their mutual giving reveals once again the oneness expressed in John’s prevalent “just as” theology. As the Father does, so does the Son. As the Father is a giver, so the Son imitates the Father in his giving.

Knowing That We Belong

Significant then are those things which are “given” by the Son and the Father. Most important and immediate we hear that the followers of Jesus know themselves as belonging to Jesus. To know oneself as belonging to Jesus is to know this as integral to the Father’s and the Son’s essential nature and purpose. Twice in the opening verse we hear of this essential giving. If we ask who are these ones about whom Jesus prays so earnestly just prior to his passion, it is about “those whom you gave me from the world” (17:6). If we ask why it is that we have come to know Jesus as resurrected Lord and Savior, it is because “they were yours, and you gave them to me.”

Knowing the Father’s Name

The second thing that has been given, Jesus says, is the knowledge of God’s “name” (6, 11, 12). If these ones whom the Father has given to Jesus now belong to Jesus, then what these believers have been given is to “know the name” (6), the character of the One who is the source of the eternal life which they have come to know in Jesus. God’s “name” stands for all that God is and has done, most importantly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To know that name is to have one’s life constituted and sustained in the power of that name — to be protected and guarded in that name (11,12).

Knowing the Word

Thirdly, we hear that these followers have been given the “word.” They are protected in the “name” precisely because they have been given and have guarded the “word.” Of course in the context of John’s witness to the “Word become flesh” (1:14) we are meant to understand that “word” in its double sense. Verse 8 rehearses the drama of the Christian life as it unfolds in the reception of that word in its multiple senses.

1) Jesus has given to them only those words which he has first received from the Father;

2) They have received or accepted those words (and so have been given power to become God’s children, (see 1:12);

3) As ones who have received him they know the truth that Jesus as the word made flesh has come from God; and 4) they have then believed in this One whom God has sent.

To respond in such a way to the “word” which has been given in Jesus is to know ourselves in the intimate bonds of belonging to him. Similar to Paul’s assertion that there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38), so the very glory of Jesus in his cross and resurrection is focused in this community of believers who now belong to him. Jesus’ prayer claims an intimate oneness in the sharing of concern for these who are the objects of the Father’s giving love through the Son: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them” (17:10).

One could do well to ponder in some way the implications of these words, that the very glory of Jesus, all the love that was poured into the passion and death of Jesus on the cross has its object and focus in those whom the Father has given the Son to love. What wonder to imagine that we who believe in his name and who so belong to him are indeed the very glory of Jesus.

Sent Into the World

Because of the Father’s name — because of who the Father is and what the Father has “given” in love to the Son — we can know ourselves as made holy and kept holy in the truth of the word (17:17). But that holiness is not a one of separation from, but precisely for immersion in the world. Again we hear John’s “just as” theology of the sending of the Son. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18). Our oneness with the Son and Father will imply a rejection by or distance from the world as enemy of the Father. Just as the world rejected Jesus in his suffering and death, so the world will also reject the disciples. Disciples will thus need the Father’s and Son’s protection in the world, “because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (14, 16).

Still in spite of the risk, and precisely because of the Father’s love, this community of disciples are sent into the world, just as the Father’s love has sent the Son into the world. We thus are again reminded of the two-fold significance of “world” for John. The world is both that which does not know and rejects the Word (1:10) and those who belong to him (17:14), but the world is also the object of the Father’s love and of his and the disciples’ ongoing love and mission.

As such disciples, too, are sent into the world armed with the word in its two fold sense — the Father’s Word now become flesh, and the words of that Word. Guarded and sustained in that word we can know ourselves as disciple community constituted in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection and in the promise of his presence in the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Counselor and Comforter. About which we will hear more in next Sunday’s lesson for Pentecost Sunday.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Jacob Myers

Our lection today is the first recorded faith crisis of the Early Church: What to do with the betrayer, Judas.

We are not given access to the debates and deliberations that precede Peter’s explication, but the first thing I notice in this text is that the time was ripe for a faith crisis.

An Ecclesial Crisis (or, After the Honeymoon Period)

The earliest followers of “the Way,” for they were not yet called “Christians,” met at an upper room in Jerusalem in fidelity to Jesus’ instructions (1:4). What was it like in that upper room, perhaps the very room in which the apostles had gathered for the Last Supper? Luke gives us a few indications; however, through a close reading of the text, I believe we can tease out several noteworthy elements.

1. They were frustrated. Jesus had strained their hopes that his resurrection from the dead might inaugurate the restoration of Israel. Jesus declared that it was not their business to know the time (1:7). So the ethnic hopes that they had hung on Jesus, had seen dashed on the cross, and then lifted to the pinnacle of expectation with his resurrection, were not yet. That’s the first marker for crisis: things don’t turn out the way we had hoped they would.

2. They were forced to wait. How hard it is to wait! How harder still it is to wait with others. Perhaps you have experienced this for yourself in traffic, on a crowded airplane stalled on the tarmac, in one of those interminable lines at Disney World — the frustration of others can intensify our own irritation. Jesus commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what God the Father had promised, namely, the Holy Spirit (1:4). This is worth waiting for, to be sure, but how long? How long, O Lord?

3. There is a transition of leadership. Jesus, their Lord and guide ascended into heaven (1:9). For three glorious years Jesus was the one who had led their Bible study, who had preached their sermons, who had offered a fresh hermeneutic perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, he had told them what to do and they (mostly) followed his lead. He was now gone. Who might take up his mantle of leadership? Luke is careful to layout the potential candidates (cf. Luke 6:13-16).

4. There only recourse was prayer. Luke is careful to tell us that they “continued together in prayer,” stressing the continuous action. How long did they pray? How long were they able to pray with one mind? We are not privy to this information. What we do know is that at some point in their prayer — amidst their waiting — a hermeneutical ripple traced the surface of their pool of prayer. If everything had played out the way they expected would Peter have needed to address the crowd? Might their prayerful unity (homothumadon) have continued without need for formal explication?

A Theological Crisis

What we find in today’s lection is an answer to a question that remains unspoken: What are we to make of the fact that Jesus handpicked Judas to be his disciple and to carry his authority into the world toward a restored Israel, in light of the reality that this same Judas betrayed Jesus to his death? Moreover, now we only have eleven. How can we resume the symbolic unity of Israel without twelve? We must not overlook the significance of this crisis for the early believers, all of whom would have likely been Jews (1:15).

Always quick to propose some action (cf. Luke 9:33), Peter reasons from Scripture that the drama precipitated by Judas’s infidelity was a necessary component in God’s design. It had to be fulfilled! Let us leave to one side Peter’s shaky exegetical foundation in defense of finding a replacement for Judas. My question is this: Why was it necessary for the apostles to select a replacement for Judas?

Prior to the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the community is markedly inward focused and radically homogeneous. The coming of the Holy Spirit shifts their focus, revealing how big Jesus’ vision really is. God is not concerned with the restoration of Israel apart from the restoration of all of creation; rather, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Israel is empowered to capture the fullness of its election and mission to the world.

Luke is able to abstract Judas’s apostasy from his personhood. Judas “became” (ginomai) a guide for those who arrested Jesus (cf. Luke 22:47). Note that all of the modifiers for Judas are in the passive sense: he was numbered among us; he was apportioned a share of this service. This grammatical construction is theologically consistent with Luke’s pronouncement in Luke 22:3 that Satan entered Judas. Moreover, Luke here is quick to remind us of Judas’s status as “one of the twelve.” Acts 1:15-17 addresses a haunting theological crisis arising from ethnic hopes and expectations.

Even though Matthias is ultimately chosen by the apostles through the casting of lots, the Spirit elects Paul to carry the apostolic mantle left vacant by Judas. Clearly the criteria established by Peter and seconded by apostolic consent — namely, that the one to replace Judas ought to have been witness to the entire ministry of Jesus from the beginning — was not seconded by the Holy Spirit. Luke only ever mentions Matthias here in the Book of Acts. The Spirit chooses Paul as the twelfth apostle.

Maybe Jesus did know what he was doing when he selected Judas as one of the twelve. Through the apostolic hole left by Judas, the homogeneous community was empowered to receive a Jew of the diaspora to show Israel the true, universal, meaning of election. As Slavoj Žižek notes, “[O]nly through Judas’ ‘betrayal’ and Christ’s death could the universal Church establish itself — that is to say, the path of universality goes through the murder of particularity. Or, to put it in a slightly different way: in order for Paul to ground Christianity from the outside, as the one who was not a member of Christ’s inner circle, this circle had to be broken from within by means of an act of terrifying betrayal.”1


1Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 2003), 17-8.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 1

Mark Throntveit

“Why do they keep messing with my Bible?”

I chuckled at this exasperated question following an adult forum on Bible translations that I was leading in one of our local congregations. Upon asking for more specificity, I was deluged with the likes of “When did the Red Sea become the Reed Sea?”; “What’s wrong with ‘the Son of Man’?”; and “What are ‘resident aliens,’ anyway . . . immigrants?” to cite but three of many.

The familiar opening phrase of Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man,” (King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New International Version), rendered “Happy are those” in the New Revised Standard Version, prompts similar questions. While there may be little difference between the two translations in contemporary English, there are sound reasons for translating ashre with “happy” rather than “blessed.” Most importantly, “Blessed is/be . . .” (using the Hebrew word baruk) is a benediction, that is, a request, prayer, or wish that God would bless that individual. “Happy is . . .” on the other hand, is a beatitude, that is, a statement, a declaration that someone is fortunate because of something they possess or because of something they have done. As my teacher, Patrick Miller, was fond of saying, ashre celebrates “a life that takes real pleasure in living according to God’s will.”

The translation “those” instead of “man” is trickier. Obviously, the NRSV is attempting to avoid a gender specific suggestion that the happy or blessed one is an adult human male. Surely most will agree that the promise and admonition of this psalm is not directed solely to them. But pluralizing the Hebrew singular obscures the common trope, found in other passages of the wisdom literature, of comparing a singular devout individual to a group of the “wicked,” rhetorically maximizing the contrast and perhaps suggesting an emphasis on individual righteousness in the face of societal or communal evil. Maybe we should read “How happy is the one. . .” as does the New English Translation, or more ambiguously “O how fortunate. . .”

The New Revised Standard Version translation of the verbs in the rest of verse one (“follow . . . take . . . sit”; for “walk . . . stand . . . sit”) is also unfortunate. Why one would choose to disrupt the obvious flow of the Hebrew progression is unclear to this interpreter, especially when one recognizes the contrast between the righteous person who “does not stand (amad) in the counsel of the wicked” (verse 1, New International Version) and the wicked who “will not stand (qum) in the judgment” (verse 5, New International Version).

Perhaps the most important aspect of Psalm 1 is its function as an introduction to the Psalter. Although it contains neither praise nor lament, the warp and woof of the book of Psalms, most interpreters these days believe the final editors of the Psalter have intentionally placed Psalm 1 here as a useful guide to the reading of the rest of the book, either alone or in conjunction with Psalm 2. Reading this wisdom psalm first, invites us to read the following psalms through the lens of what is generally known as “Torah piety,” an ethical reflection on what it means to live one’s life in accordance with the vision presented in Scripture.

Such alignment with God’s will, however, presupposes one knows what that will is (hence an implicit urging to continue reading in the Psalms?) and that one is able or likely to so conform. Disagreement on these matters, especially the second, has resulted in divergent interpretations of this psalm revolving around its seeming legalistic tone since the patristic period. But torah need not imply “Law.” The Pentateuch, itself, may be intended by torah, or, more simply, God’s “teaching” or “instruction” as in the JPS translation. Certainly, it is not speaking of “law” as opposed to “grace” in some Pauline sense.

Structurally, the Psalm clearly falls into two sections contrasting the righteous (verses 1-3) with the wicked (verses 4-5), followed by a summarizing coda (verse 6). A and A’ are linked by the repetition of “wicked” and “sinners.” B and B’ are linked by the repetition of the comparative kaph, “like,” as well as the adversative “but” (ki im). This leaves the stark contrast of C and C’ with its dramatic “Not so, the wicked!” (verse 4a, NIV) as a central hinge or pivot, as the following schematic reveals:

Structural Analysis of Psalm One:

A  Description: the righteous (1)
  B  Comparison: the righteous is like (2-3a)
    C  Result: Prosperity for the righteous (3b)

    C’ Result: Not so for the wicked (4a)
  B’ Comparison: the wicked are like (4b)
A’ Description: the wicked (5)

CODA The two ways summarized (6)

Essentially, the psalm serves as an extended metaphor and explanation of the antithetical proverb expressed as a chiasm in the Coda (verse 6):

A  For Yahweh knows
  B  the way of the righteous
  B’ but the way of the wicked
A’ will perish

It’s important not to overemphasize this stark opposition between the “righteous” and the “wicked” in a simplistic, black-and-white way. This most wisdom-like of the Psalms is not claiming that there are no shades of gray in our commitment and walk of faith. People are complex; life is not so simple. Rather, this psalm strives to depict the two ways and their consequences for us in all their stark reality. At any one moment we find ourselves moving in one direction or the other, moving toward an ultimate destination. As the frontispiece of the Psalms, this snap-shot will serve to remind us of the joys and consequences of our journeys.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 5:9-13

Audrey West

1 John offers a Twitter version of John 3:16 as the central claim of this week’s text: “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God’s Son.” (1 John 5:11b).

The “open essay” (or perhaps a sermon, but certainly not a letter) of 1 John is written to encourage a community that is divided over the question of the humanity of Jesus.  Yes, Jesus’ humanity.  That sounds a little odd in our day, where modern and post-modern questions are more likely to arise around the divinity of Christ.  Nonetheless, some of the members of the 1 John community have split off from the church, [apparently] denying that Jesus is the Christ (2:22) or that he came in the flesh (4:2-3).  The author is intent on encouraging those who remain that their confession of the earthly Jesus as the Christ and Son of God is true.

Whom to believe?

If word count is any measure, the central issue in the assigned text is testimony (Greek =marturia, “witness”), and specifically the validity and content of God’s testimony about God’s Son.

The opening line is a conditional sentence with a protasis assumed to be true: “If we receive human testimony (which, in fact, we do), the testimony of God is greater…”  We should note that the emphasis here is on the weight of the testimony (i.e., God’s testimony exceeds human testimony and makes a greater demand on our assent).  This claim about God’s testimony sets up the rest of the passage, and it sets up a choice as well, suggested in verses 10-11.  

Will we, or will we not believe the “testimony that God has testified” concerning God’s Son (5:10)? 

Commentators often point to a comparable construction in the Gospel of John 5:33-37, where Jesus says of John the Baptist’s testimony, “Not that I accept such human testimony…But I have a testimony greater than John’s.  The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.  And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf.”  The best witness that Jesus is God’s own son is God Godself.

In the midst of a theological conflict, can there be any higher authority than God? 

Evidence for the testimony

What is this proof that God’s testimony is true?  That is, how can the believer know that the earthly Jesus is, indeed, the Christ, the Son of God?  Evidence for the validity of God’s testimony is not simply a lofty claim made by the author of 1 John.  It is validated by the experience of the community, which has heard, seen, looked at and touched the evidence for it-self (1:1-2).  Further, the Spirit, the water (baptism) and the blood (Jesus’ death on the cross) also testify to the truth (5:8).

Equally important, this truth is the possession of each believer, who “has” the testimony within (5:10).1  “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God’s Son.  Whoever has the Son has life…” (5:11). 

Thus, the most compelling evidence is the gift of eternal life.

Eternal Life

The author is not trying to persuade people to believe in Christ — his readers are already among the believers.  Instead, he is encouraging them with the knowledge that they already possess eternal life (5:13).  Eternal life is the strongest evidence for God’s testimony, and it is manifested among them in ways they have already experienced.

Both the Gospel of John and 1 John understand eternal life to be a present reality as well as future promise for those who believe in Jesus Christ.  “Life” in this sense (Greek = zoē) has to do with a quality of existence that death cannot destroy.  That is, it is “eternal,” not in the sense of lasting forever, but in its quality, in its manifestation in the here and now. 

How does the community know that it has eternal life?  Evidence offered elsewhere in 1 John suggests the following:

a) by its love for one another (3:14);
b) by laying down life for one another (3:16);
c) by sharing the world’s goods with those who are in need (3:17);
d) in its obedience to Jesus’ commandment, which is to believe in his name and love one another (3:23; 5:3-5).

Thus, the most persuasive evidence for eternal life is seen in the extent to which the community walks in the manner that Jesus walked (2:5b-6) and demonstrates its love for one another (4:11-12; 20-21).

The preacher has an opportunity to show (tell, give evidence for, testify) to the love of God that is already manifested in the gathered community.  What does eternal life look like from where you sit?  Where do you see love enacted in the lives of your people?  Where is generosity made manifest, what is being sacrificed for the sake of the other?  If we receive such human testimony, the testimony of God is greater: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in God’s Son.


1The NRSV inclusivizes the passage by rendering it in the plural, but the Greek text contains a singular subject: “the one who believes… the one who does not believe.”  The NRSV “in their hearts” is not present in the Greek; a better translation, consistent with the NRSV plural forms is, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in themselves.”)